NEW YORK — Eric McCormack is thinking back to March 1998, when he filmed the pilot for a comedy about unusual best friends: a handsome gay man and a beautiful straight woman cohabiting in Manhattan.
He had a good feeling about it. So did his co-star, Debra Messing.
“When shooting was finished that night, Debra and I were sitting on the couch and looking at each other and I said, ‘We’re gonna be on this set for a while.’ And we sort of clasped hands, but we didn’t want to say anything beyond that and jinx it.”
His forecast was right on target. “Will & Grace” won a place on the NBC fall schedule, and its title characters — plus flamboyantly effeminate Jack (Sean Hayes) and riotous diva Karen (Megan Mullally) — won the audience’s heart.
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Now filming has begun for the eighth and final season of “Will & Grace” (8:30 p.m. ET Thursdays) as it awaits next month’s Emmycast flush with 15 nominations, including McCormack for lead actor in a comedy series (a prize he won in 2001).
McCormack takes great satisfaction from Emmy’s nod, especially since “Will & Grace” recently has taken flak for a lack of freshness and an overreliance on guest stars.
“Some television critics don’t like us anymore,” says McCormack, who then gamely points to all those nominations with this comeback: “Well, maybe YOU don’t, but our peers do!”
And since five of the nominees are for guest actor or actress in a comedy series (Victor Garber, Jeff Goldblum, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin and Blythe Danner) “the very thing we’ve been criticized for the most turns out to be something that not EVERYBODY hates.”
But he says it with a chuckle. The 42-year-old yet laddish-looking actor doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously — not even his own good looks, which come, of course, complete with that George Hamilton-class mole blessing his cheek.
So let nitpickers grumble. For its season premiere Sept. 29, “Will & Grace” will try something different by airing live — twice, for each half of the country.
“But there’s only so much we can do,” says McCormack, “and still be ‘Will & Grace.”’
What makes “Will & Grace” unique is its nonjudgmental sharing of love, its fabulous yuppie-ness and zingy repartee. (“Oh, I was hoping you would fall in love,” says Grace after hearing about Will’s boring date, to which he happily responds, “I did! I found the perfect pair of jeans!”)
“There is a tremendous consistency to our show,” McCormack says. “The crew hasn’t changed. The cast is the same. And Jimmy is always at the helm.” (“Jimmy” is James Burrows, the legendary sitcom director who’s won Emmys for work that spans “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Friends” and “Frasier.”)
“Critics want ‘fresh,”’ McCormack goes on. “But long-running television shows aren’t built that way. When people tune into ‘Will & Grace,’ they don’t want new actors in the roles. They don’t want a new setting: They don’t want to suddenly see it taking place in Miami. The freshness must be strictly internal, how we do little things. The big picture is not gonna change that much.”
The big picture conjured by “Will & Grace” has long been a bright one, and its passing will leave the TV landscape dimmer.
Not to mention NBC. Once the destination for exceptional comedy (especially Thursday nights), NBC scored with “Cheers,” “Taxi” and “The Cosby Show” in the early 1980s, then a decade later with “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Frasier” and, of course, “Will & Grace.”
But during the ’90s, there were oh so many failures.
“NBC just pumped them out,” McCormack recalls. “Whether it was Brooke Shields (‘Suddenly Susan’) or ‘The Single Guy’ or the Tea Leoni show (‘The Naked Truth’) — all those shows looked and felt the same.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Meanwhile, NBC seemed to lose sight of any need to publicize its established hits.
“I’ve gone to NBC every year and said, ‘If you’re going to move us, could you tell people?’ But I think NBC took a laissez-faire attitude,” whereupon McCormick borrows Jerry Seinfeld’s sing-songy style to voice what network execs might have told themselves: “‘Evvvverybody knooows: It’s Must-See Thurrrsday. Viewers tuuune in. They don’t tuuune out.’
“But they DID tune out,” McCormack notes ruefully. And lots of them tuned to CBS, where now, for a second season, the “Will & Grace” competition is still “Survivor.” (Against this much-promoted powerhouse, “Will & Grace” logged 46th place in viewers last season, tumbling from its perch as a top 15 show in 2003-04.)
Now as the 2005-06 season begins, the sitcom genre remains an endangered species for which no one (including McCormack) can forecast the future. But he is planning for his own life beyond “Will & Grace.” Next summer he expects to shoot a romantic comedy he wrote and will direct. His production company has development deals for possible series with two networks, one of them NBC.
And he’s looking for acting roles to give the audience a different view of him than as Will Truman, that handsome but neurotic gay Manhattan lawyer.
“Television fame makes people say, ‘THAT’S who that guy is. THAT’S the way he is,”’ says McCormack, who has made millions laugh by displaying his Will power. “Now I have to say, ‘Look, I’m lots of other guys, too.”’
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